HENRY IN FINKLE ROAD
Term time is faster than normal time. It seemed barely any time at all since Henry had arrived in Cranwell, yet the final week was suddenly upon him. Frank was in a bad mood because Henry was going to be away over the vacation, although why he had expected Henry to stay in Cranwell just to help him during the Christmas holiday was more than Henry could understand.
‘Why can’t you be loyal to this pub like your boyfriend? He’s got a sense of responsibility. He’s staying on till Christmas Eve to help with the office-party rush. I’m having to pay him over the fucking odds, the little thief, but at least he’s willing.’
‘Sorry, Frank, but I’ve got a life. Why don’t you ask Terry?’
Frank stared at Henry as if he were mad.
Henry called across the lounge, where David and Terry were drinking. ‘Hey Terry, Frank wants to know if you’ll serve the bar over Christmas. He’s a bit desperate for help, now that people are actually drinking here.’
Terry laughed out loud. ‘Sure, you old bastard, you only had to ask. I live just down the road, don’t I? We’ll be here till Boxing Day.’
Henry grinned at a stunned manager as the regulars at the public bar all cheered. ‘There you are, Frank. Sorted.’
Frank was on edge that day, or more on edge than usual. The brewery regional manager was coming in for a six-monthly review. Frank should have been more secure. Even Henry could see that profits were considerably up for the period, but Frank was nervous nonetheless. Still, it was not Henry’s problem, and fellow-feeling with Frank was not a masochism he was willing to indulge.
When Henry had finished his shift, he hooked up with David, and they went off into town to browse for clothes. Henry was going to be an office worker for Marlowe Productions, and his old school suit would no longer do. David’s ideas were good, but mostly too expensive. In the end they found something agreeable to both of them in the Burton’s pre-Christmas clearance sale.
They took in a film and had a lazy evening with Terry in his flat.
Terry was full of his new Tarlenheim contract. ‘Iss amazing what’s happening to poor Fritzy. That guy Bannow should be sued. My people in Modenehem are working full time with the local police to keep loonies away from him. You seen this?’ Terry produced a photograph that at first sight looked like an Orthodox saint with a halo round his head … but the face was Fritz’s. ‘They’re selling these at wacky religious bookshops and relic stores. Iss not fair to do this to a sixteen-year-old kid.
‘Anyways, we’re taking him out of there. He’s leaving Rothenia by chartered jet a few days after Christmas, and Oskar’s driving him down to Justy and Nate’s. Justy’ll keep him safe for now, and then he can start in his new school in Notting Hill beginning of January. Jenna Rudat and Andy’s security team will keep him under their umbrella. Iss a bit tough on his sister Helge, who’s been looking after him since he was four, but maybe it’ll all blow over by summer.’
Henry looked appropriately sympathetic, although secretly he was delighted that Fritz was going to be in England for a while. But he had a question of his own. ‘Hey Uncle Terry, Eddie and I only had one visit from Justy. Have you lost interest in us?’
Terry laughed. ‘To be honest, Henry, you and Eddie have stunned us. Eddie has been very clever about keeping under cover, and you – yer little tyke – have drawn all the attention with your surprise fame in that nice poster. Eddie’s move to Cranwell has been a brilliant success, and Andy has been singing your praises all over Peacherland. You’re getting the credit for it.’
‘But that’s not fair. Eddie has done it all himself. He’s been really good, and he’s a proper mate too.’
‘Iss not what people would have predicted, Henry. He was a complete tosser in California. His dad expected him to flunk out disastrously, even at Cranwell, so when they looked for why the flunking didn’t happen, they decided it’s because of your good example.’
‘Well tell them the truth. Eddie deserves the credit, and maybe Paulie, who’s pulled his intellectual switch.’
Henry was beginning to pack up in Finkle Road, and in his usual way he meticulously ticked off targets he had identified and achieved. He had already completed the essay assessments for two of his modules, and he had two exams to prepare for. Gavin, who was a willing-enough albeit disorganised student, looked on in awe as Henry marshalled his notes and drew up a revision schedule. He marvelled as Henry created files and memory aids. He applauded as Henry systematically worked through the core books and bibliographies.
‘So this is how I should have done it at school. No wonder I got CDD at A Level. No wonder you got four A’s. I never dreamed of doing all that.’
It was Henry’s turn to marvel. ‘So what did you do?’
‘I just sort of read the teacher’s notes and looked at the odd book.’
‘Oh!’ A new world had just swum into Henry’s view.
The last day of term had come. Henry and Gavin went to the Gaysoc Christmas party and kissed under the mistletoe. Henry also kissed Manda, who went strangely coy. Henry and Gavin had their last sex of the year. As he left Gavin’s body, Henry looked down and finally felt he could say, so the boy could hear him, ‘I love you, my Gavin.’
Gavin grabbed him, pulled him down again and frantically hugged him, murmuring all sorts of delirious endearments.
Henry broke away and grinned. ‘You happy about that, are you?’
Gavin laughed joyously, then looked introspective. ‘So we’re ending on a high note, my own Henry. You’ll keep in touch?’
‘Yes of course. Daily. And you can come up to London and see me after New Year. Matt says it’s all right … in fact, he’s very curious to meet you.’
‘The Matt White?’
‘The man himself.’
‘Wow! He knows I exist?’
‘Yes, baby mine, and he really does want to meet you. You’re not too scared, are you?’
‘A bit, but not if you’re with me. We survived the King’s Cross together after all.’
‘Yes we did. It says a lot about you, Gavin, that you adapted to that hostile environment. I’d never have believed you had it in you, judging by the feeble little nerd with no self-esteem I met at Fresher’s Fair. Now look at you: streetwise, able to stand up to Frank the Merciless, and a cute piercing. Just don’t get tattoos.’
‘No tattoos! But I wanted one across my bum … “Property of Henry Atwood”.’
Henry laughed and Gavin grinned secretly to himself. ‘Seriously, Henry, I’m what you made of me. I owe it all to you. I’ve got cool friends, proper clothes, a job, and my grades look to be on the up – all because you picked me out of a gutter. I can never thank you, so I’ve just got to devote everything I am to you.’
‘Hmm, well that’s scary. This has not been about possessing Gavin, but bringing out all the funniness and happiness he had in him. And that you are now funny and happy …’
‘… and a good fuck ...’
‘Yes, and a good fuck … is all the reward I need. Now I just want you in me and I’ll be happy, too.’
Henry left for London the next morning early. Gavin and he said a farewell so passionate there was a risk it could have turned to another coupling in the hall passage, if Eddie had not been audibly snoring in his bedroom upstairs. Henry did not need to say goodbye to Eddie, whom he would be seeing in Highgate the following week. He indulged in the luxury of a taxi, as he had a big case, shoulder bag and suit carrier to organise.
Henry had not been in London much, and he loved it … or perhaps he loved it because he had not been in it much. Paddington was awesome with its vast crowd of commuters which swept Henry along like a human tide. He found his way through its eddies and currents to the Circle Line and from there changed at Euston on to the deadly Northern Line, whose vagaries had bemused him in the past.
He got to Highgate tube station without incident to find a black car waiting for him. The driver was Mark Rudat, Jenna’s husband, a cheery soul with whom Henry had formed a friendship the previous year. ‘Ooh Henry, very alternative: a piercing! Does your mother know?’
‘No. She’ll find out when I get home and not before. I don’t want the lecture on infections and blood poisoning before it’s absolutely necessary.’
‘And the streaks in the hair?’
‘That was Davey’s idea. I wish they’d grow out, but they’re taking their time. Who’s in Highgate at the moment?’
‘Not Ed Cornish.’
‘Tactless. That was not why I was asking.’
Mark sniggered. ‘Andy’s in residence for a few days before he goes down to the country. That’s why Jenna and I are here, minding his little butt. Eddie’s coming Sunday, but you know that. Otherwise that’s that. Paulie, Rachel and their kid may be coming up from Cranwell next week, but no one’s quite sure. I’m getting stick from Mrs Atkinson about how many bedrooms are needed, but she’s really just tense because she wants little Mattie Oscott in the house so she can go nuts over him.’
‘He’s a real sweetie. I babysit for his mum and dad down in Cranwell.’
‘Somehow I knew you’d be good with kids, Henry. So here you are. Matt’s down at the offices in Camden. He says he wants to see you when he gets home, and he says you have to speed-read this.’ Mark handed him a copy of Staring in the Face of Christ, which he pulled from his pocket.
‘No need,’ Henry replied. ‘I’ve already read it.’
‘Oh … I suppose most people have. That helps no end then.’
‘What’s going down?’
‘I have no idea. I’m Andy’s PA, not Matt’s.’
Henry was put in a small single bedroom on the dormer floor of the eighteenth-century house. Mrs Atkinson, the housekeeper, gave him a fond greeting and led him straight past the bedroom he had shared with Ed Cornish on his previous visits. Hardly surprising maybe, but of all the things that reminded him their affair was dead, gone and irrecoverable, passing their old room was the most poignant.
Henry unpacked and strolled round the house, having a coffee with Mrs Atkinson and giving her the latest news on little Mattie. Then he wandered down to the village and out to Kenwood, enjoying the London ambience, the taxis and the red buses.
When he got back to Matt’s house, Andy was in, and Henry knocked on his study door. He got a hug and a kiss, for Henry was Andy’s favourite amongst the teens of the Peacher set, something Andy made no attempt to disguise.
They sat on his study sofa. Andy grinned and asked him about Eddie.
‘Oh he’s working his arse off at all sorts of stuff. You know he’s started a Union society and his first essay for Paulie’s course got him an upper second. It was anonymously marked, so there’s no question of favouritism.’
‘All this and he’s kept his head down too …’
‘… mostly between girls’ legs, but yes, Eddie’s been brilliant. I hope he’s getting the credit for it.’
‘My dad will take some convincing, but it stands to reason that he can’t be less bright than Harry. Twins usually score close together in IQ tests. He’s had issues, maybe. But university seems to be resolving them. What’s he like to live with?’
‘I daren’t go in his room, except to use his web connection. He never tidies up and I don’t know how his clothes get washed, cos I never see him using the machine. The stink is unbelievable, yet his girlfriends put up with it. I’m willing to bet he talks them into what cleaning gets done. Of course, mostly he wanders round nude. I counted three solid days in October when he didn’t get dressed at all, and that included going next door to borrow some milk. Fortunately, next door is all boys and he went over the back fence, but he’ll get into trouble for it one day.’
Andy had hysterics. When he finished he wiped his eyes and said, ‘You’re a saint, Henry.’
‘Actually,’ said Henry, ‘I thought the saint was Fritzy. Terry showed me an icon of St Fritz of Tarlenheim.’
‘Hmm, that situation’s a worry. But it’ll be nice to have him here. He may not be a saint, but he’s a real individual, is Fritz, and what a looker he’s grown up to be over the past year. I thought Oskar was something, but Fritz is something else. I suppose you know there’s been girl trouble there too.’
‘I knew there’s been a succession of girlfriends, but I thought it was just puppy love.’
‘Helge caught him in bed with the eighteen-year-old sister of one of her friends. They weren’t playing doctor and nurse, either.’
‘Was her name Natasha?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘Naughty Fritz. So that’s another reason why he’s been exiled to London, and to a gay household too. I won’t resist if he tries it on with me, though.’
‘Naughty Henry. You have a significant other now. What would, er …’
‘Yes … what would Gavin say if he found you were cheating on him with an imperial prince, and an icon too?’
‘I imagine he might be impressed.’
Matt White arrived home at six. Henry was waiting for him and, as usual, the man’s sheer beauty took his breath away. It was quite a while before he could stop staring and start reacting as if Matt were just another human being.
If Matt noticed Henry’s distraction, he was too polite to mention it. ‘Okay Henry, I suppose you want to know what’s behind all the mystery?’
‘You made a good impression on the office when you did work experience as a junior there last year, and it was one of the assistant producers who suggested you could help out in our latest project. Have you heard of Chad Wardrinski?’
‘Better than that, he gave a lecture down in Cranwell last term, and I went.’
‘So you’ll know all about him then.’
‘Enough. He’s got a bee in his bonnet about religion, right?’
‘Certainly has. At the moment it’s buzzing fit to burst over the latest Alastair Bannow book …’
‘… which I’ve read.’
‘Good. What did you think?’
‘Dr Paulie says it’s logically deeply flawed, but Bannow makes an interesting story all the same.’
Matt nodded. ‘It’s got a huge amount of interest worldwide, and some religious groups are hailing it as the greatest spiritual revelation of modern times.’
‘Those would be the same religious groups who campaign for creationism in the classroom and employ albino monks wearing cilices round their thighs as hit men?’
‘Not entirely, Henry. Apparently the pope himself summoned Bannow for a confidential interview last month, and the Vatican has assigned a professor of theology at the Gregorian University to assess the value of Bannow’s evidence. Naturally Wardrinski is deeply interested in a hostile sort of way, and when I suggested we get him to present a documentary about it, he leaped at the chance.’
‘Oh right. A demolition job for the secular intelligentsia.’
‘It might turn out that way, but I hope our people can stop him turning it into one of his usual rants. I’ve kept editorial control, although he wasn’t too keen on that. He knows I’m a cradle Catholic.’
‘You said you need someone who speaks Rothenian.’
‘Yes. There’s a lot of Rothenian literature that needs assessing. You know St Fenice’s Meditation?’
‘I have a copy.’
‘Henry, you’re brilliant! I need to check the script and Bannow’s book against what the Meditation actually says, and what is at the root of its symbolism. Can you do that?’
‘Yes, I suppose.’
‘The other thing is that Wardrinski’s of Rothenian descent. His father came to Britain to escape the Nazi occupation in 1940, and settled here. He was born in Croydon and was a grammar-school boy. He speaks no Rothenian and we can’t use him to track down his Rothenian background, so I need you to liaise with Rothenian enquiry agencies.’
‘Do I get to go to Strelzen?’ asked Henry hopefully.
Matt smiled; he shared Henry’s love of that glorious city. ‘No, sorry, Henry. Not this time. You can meet up with the production team on Monday. Any plans for the weekend?’
‘Er, no. None. Eddie’s coming up on Sunday.’
‘Good. You can come with me and Andy to the National Opera’s premiere of La Clemenza di Tito tonight. Mrs Atkinson says your evening suit’s still hanging in Ed’s wardrobe. And there’s a big party afterwards, to which I wangled you tickets. Oh … and one more thing.’
‘Giss a hug, Henry. I’ve missed you lots.’
The curtain went down at the end of the last act and Henry joined the surge of applause in Covent Garden. Looking down from the balcony at the black ties and taffeta gowns, he could not believe his rapid transition from poverty-stricken student to member of the metropolitan cultural élite. He had taken his brow stud out for the time being. It didn’t quite match the company, he’d decided, although neither Matt nor Andy had said anything.
Henry stood as several people entered their box, amongst whom he recognised a government minister and a TV commentator. He was introduced as a friend of the Peacher family and eyed up discretely for signs of great wealth; he smiled blandly.
The party was at a Mayfair hotel. Henry circulated with Matt until he found himself next to another teen boy, the only other one in the room. ‘Hi,’ said Henry with his friendliest smile, ‘you here with your parents?’
The other boy, quite a good-looking lad, said he was. ‘How about you?’
‘I’m staying with some friends in Highgate, and they brought me.’
‘Don’t I know you?’ the other boy asked.
‘Er … don’t think so.’
‘No, come on, there’s something … I’ve got it! I have a poster with you on it. Back of my door in Cambridge, you and Ed Cornish: “Achilles and Patroclus” by Bolslaw Meric. I’ve got all his books. Meric’s a genius.’
‘You know Ed?’
‘He’s in my year in History, different college though. So were you and he …?’
‘We used to be. He’s got someone else now. But you’re not gay are you?’
‘Nope. At least I don’t think so. No, art photography is my hobby, and Bolslaw Meric is my hero. What’s he like?’
‘Fat, bald and very gay. He’s a friend of a friend, and we saw a bit of him in Strelzen the year before last. He grabbed me and Ed and talked us into modelling. If I’d known how famous he was, I’d never have agreed. Next thing I know my little face and thin chest are lust objects for every gay and bisexual with good taste in the US and Britain. But with the money it’s made me, I may well evade student debt at this rate. So I’m not too annoyed with him. I’m Henry Atwood, by the way. But don’t I know you too? You look familiar, though not from a poster sale.’
The other boy smiled. ‘It’s the parents. My dad’s the prime minister.’
Henry woke into a different world on Saturday morning. Mrs Atkinson ran an efficient household. Henry found an unbelievably handsome breakfast laid out on the kitchen bar – all sorts of breads, jams, meats, eggs and drinks. There was also a stack of magazines and papers. Matt’s PA had marked up the ones with relevant pictures and articles, and there were Henry and Matt, Henry and Mark, the prime minister’s son, and Henry and the daughter of the Duke of Grosvenor. Henry was in society after only one night on the town. He was bemused. ‘Mr Henry Atwood, close friend of King Rudolf of Rothenia and emerging model’ was his new identity. That must have been Mark telling on him, and research in their files from last year. So Henry was a minor society figure. He had no doubt that it would be noticed by his new university friends. Oh well, it would take even more heat off Eddie Peacher at least.
Andy turned up yawning. He gave Henry a peck on the cheek and settled into the papers next to him. ‘Any plans today?’ he asked.
‘Desperately. I can’t let the job with Marlowe Productions swamp my assessment. So if I get some work done today and tomorrow, I’ll be well on course.’
‘I thought you might like to go shopping at Bluewater or somewhere like that.’
‘No money, Andy. Remember? You were a student in No 25 Finkle Road once.’
‘You forget these things. You’re right, of course. You want to come and watch me spend money?
‘That’s not my plan, sorry Andy.’
‘Kids are just not fun any more.’
‘Who is Ed Cornish’s new guy?’
Andy looked at Henry with a certain sympathy. ‘I only know that he’s in Ed’s college and that he’s older than Ed. But you’ll find out in due course. He’ll be in the house party at Castringham. Are you going to be all right about this? Come on, Henry, you’ve both moved on.’
‘I know, but it bothers me that I’ll make an idiot of myself, burst into tears when I see him, scratch the new bloke’s eyes out, or something.’
Andy laughed. ‘I don’t think you’ll do any such thing.’
‘Hmph,’ Henry replied. ‘I almost wish I had the nerve.’